Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rockwell International S-2R (Ayres S-2R Thrush), N4977X: Accident occurred January 10, 2011 in Oakley, California

NTSB Identification: WPR11LA094
 14 CFR Part 137: Agricultural
Accident occurred Monday, January 10, 2011 in Oakley, CA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 01/17/2012
Aircraft: ROCKWELL INTERNATIONAL S-2R, registration: N4977X
Injuries: 1 Fatal.

NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

The pilot was initiating an aerial application to a field when the airplane collided with a 198-foot-tall, unpainted metal meteorological evaluation tower (MET). No information about the MET was distributed in any Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) notices or other publications for pilots, and the MET was not equipped with any markings or obstruction lights for visual conspicuity. For these reasons, the pilot likely had limited opportunity to become aware of the MET before the flight, and his ability to detect it visually in flight was extremely limited. Although the pilot’s toxicological results were positive for dextromethorphan (an over-the-counter cough suppressant) and dextrorphan (a metabolite of dextromethorphan) in the urine, the substances were not noted in the blood; therefore, it is likely that some time had passed since the pilot had used the medication. Additionally, these substances would not normally be expected to result in any impairment.

METs are used to measure wind data throughout the United States. They can be assembled quickly and can be constructed of galvanized tubing with guy wires used as support. Because many METs (like the accident MET) are just below the 200-foot threshold at which FAA regulations would require the applicant to notify the FAA of the MET and to provide a lighting and marking plan for FAA assessment, many METs are unmarked, unlighted, and not referenced in any FAA notices or publications for pilots. Although the FAA in 2011 approved an update to Advisory Circular (AC) 70/7460-1K, Obstruction Marking and Lighting, that will provide recommended guidance on marking METs, ACs are only advisory in nature. Because of this, MET constructions will likely continue to meet only the minimum requirements and, thus, will remain a hazard to pilots operating at low altitudes. In March 2011, the NTSB published Safety Alert SA-016 to educate pilots about the flight-safety issues presented by METs. The Safety Alert is available at the NTSB’s website at

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
An in-flight collision with an unmarked meteorological evaluation tower (MET) during an aerial application flight due to the pilot's failure to see and avoid the obstacle. Contributing to the accident was the lack of visual conspicuity of the MET and the lack of information available to the pilot about the MET before the flight.


On January 10, 2011, at 1057 Pacific standard time, N4977X, a Rockwell International S-2R, impacted a meteorological evaluation tower (MET) while initiating an aerial application on Webb Tract Island, Oakley, California. The airplane sustained substantial damage. The commercial pilot was fatally injured. Alexander Ag Flying Service Incorporated was operating the airplane under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 137. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration inspector that responded to the accident site, the pilot was conducting an aerial application when the accident occurred. Witnesses indicated that the pilot overflew the area and then began the first pass over the field. The airplane then impacted a MET. Witnesses did not report seeing the airplane perform any evasive maneuvers prior to the impact. The tower was unpainted metal, and was not equipped with obstruction lights or markings.

The land owner indicated that the MET on Webb Tract Island was erected in April 2009. According to Contra Costa Country personnel that approved the construction of the MET, the permit was approved in August 2008, and applicable until August 2009. There was no extension on the permit.

The project description stated that the tower stood 197 feet 8.25 inches tall, and was designed specifically for wind resource measurements. Additionally, it stated "The 60-meter (197 feet) tower is lower than the 200 feet threshold set by the FAA, and as such meets FAA regulations."


The pilot, age 58, held a commercial pilot certificate for airplane single and multi-engine land with an instrument rating. He held a second-class airman medical certificate issued on October 13, 2010, with no limitations. The pilot reported 26,000 total flight hours on his last medical application.


An autopsy was performed on the pilot on January 11, 2011, by the Office of the Sheriff- Contra Costa County Coroner's Division. The autopsy attributed the cause of death to trauma sustained in the aircraft accident.

Forensic toxicology was performed on specimens from the pilot by the FAA Bioaeronautical Sciences Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The toxicology report was negative for carbon monoxide, cyanide, and ethanol. The toxicology report indicated that dextromethorphan, dextrorphan, and ibuprofen were detected in urine. The dextromethorphan and dextrorphan were not detected in blood.


Meteorological Evaluation Towers (METs)

METs are used nationwide to measure wind data. According to a National Agricultural Aviation Association article on METs, "Met testing towers are used for gathering wind data during the development and siting of wind energy conversion facilities. The met towers consist of galvanized tubing assembled at the site, and raised and supported using guy wires. Agricultural pilots, emergency medical services (EMS) operations, Fish and Wildlife, animal damage control, aerial fire suppression, and any other low-level flying operation may be affected. The fact that these towers are narrow, unmarked, and grey in color makes for a structure that is nearly invisible under some atmospheric conditions."

Review of accident data involving aircraft colliding with METs showed that in addition to this accident, two other fatal accidents occurred. One was in 2005 in Ralls, Texas (NTSB accident number: DFW05LA126) and the other was in 2003 in Vansycle, Oregon (NTSB accident number: SEA04LA027).

State Actions

Prior to FAA action, numerous states took action to mandate requirements for METs at the local level. Examples of these actions include South Dakota requiring that METs be marked, and Wyoming maintaining an online database of METS and requiring all METs to be registered and marked so that they are visible from a distance of 2,000 feet. State and national industry groups also worked with the FAA on recognition of the hazards posed by METs to aircraft operating at low altitudes.

FAA Guidance on METs

Title 14 CFR Part 77.13 "Construction or alteration requiring notice" states "(a) Except as provided in 77.15, each sponsor who proposes any of the following construction or alteration shall notify the Administrator in the form and manner prescribed in 77.17: (1) Any construction or alteration of more than 200 feet in height above the ground level at its site."

In January of 2011, the FAA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (docket number FAA-2010-1326) to update Advisory Circular (AC) 70/7460-1K, Obstruction Marking and Lighting, to recommend the marking of METs. In June of 2011, the FAA approved the recommended guidance for voluntary marking of METs to be provided in the update AC 70/7460-1K. ACs are advisory and not regulatory.

Regional FAA FAAST teams have been educating operators about the dangers of METs. This has been accomplished through presentations, as well as through distribution of brochures highlighting the issue.

 MARTINEZ -- The family of a pilot killed in a 2011 plane crash on a Delta island is suing those responsible for building the meteorological tower his airplane struck, saying it was purposely built to avoid federal regulations for making such structures more visible.

Agricultural pilot Stephen Allen was killed on Webb Tract in Contra Costa County on Jan. 10, 2011, after his airplane struck a 198-foot tower that he likely did not see, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Federal law requires that meteorological towers taller than 200 feet be painted in bright aviation colors and lit.

NRG Systems "willfully, intentionally and with a conscious disregard for the safety of others" chose to install the tower without markings, paint, lights, cable balls or devices to enhance visibility, according to a lawsuit filed last November in Sacramento County Superior Court by Allen's wife Karen and daughters Angela Lucero and Gail Back.

"Steve ran an agricultural business and had been flying for more than 25 years and by all accounts was a great guy, so from that perspective, the loss is incalculable," said Roger Dreyer, the attorney representing the Allen family.

The family is seeking an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages, Dreyer said.

NRG denies all of the allegations, and says that Allen's own carelessness was "concurrently and comparatively negligent" or at fault in the crash, attorney Craig  Livingston said in response to the complaint. Further, Allen knew the risks and hazards in the area, he said.

Property owners Delta Wetlands Properties and ZKS Real Estate Partners LLC and tower installers Western Development and Storage LLC, Shah and Associates Inc. and Bouldin Farming Co. were also named as defendants for allowing the tower to be erected and knowing the possible risks and location of the tower, according to the suit.

Attorneys for those groups did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The case was transferred to Contra Costa County Superior Court earlier this year. A case-management conference is planned for early January.

Experts say wind energy companies build towers under the 200-foot federal threshold so that they can prevent competitors from learning their whereabouts through the federal permitting process.

The risk to agricultural pilots is an "intentional circumstance," Dreyer said.

"(The lawsuit) is about accountability," he said.

Prompted by Allen's crash, California legislators approved a bill this summer that requires that all such towers 50 feet and taller built after Jan. 1, 2013, be clearly marked with thick stripes of orange and white paint, orange tracking balls attached to each support wire, and clear marking on the ground where the wires are anchored.

It is optional for lights to be placed at the highest point of each tower. The bill has a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2018.


 (Photo courtesy of Michael Ganson)

 (Photo courtesy of Michael Ganson)

On Jan. 10, 2011, agricultural pilot Stephen Allen, of Courtland, was killed after his airplane struck an unmarked 198-foot tower on Webb Tract Island to evaluate the potential of wind turbines in that location. Allen likely never saw the steel tower that caused the fatal crash, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board. Had it been two feet taller, the company that erected it would have had to paint the tower in orange and white and put a light on top. AG pilots are calling for changes to regulations that say only towers 200 feet and taller must be marked with bright paint. Coincidentally, the Federal Aviation Administration last month began a public hearing process that would change its recommendation to developers on how tall a tower needs to be to have bright markings on it.

 (Photo courtesy of Michael Ganson)

NTSB Identification: WPR11LA094
14 CFR Part 137: Agricultural
Accident occurred Monday, January 10, 2011 in Oakley, CA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 01/17/2012
Aircraft: ROCKWELL INTERNATIONAL S-2R, registration: N4977X
Injuries: 1 Fatal.

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